The Audio Research rounds things out a little with a touch of extra body and colour that add to its lovely sense of life and energy. The Muse in contrast, leans neither on the front, the middle nor the tail of the note. It favours no one frequency band at the expense of another; no extra bit of mid-bass weight to give a little explosive impetus, no extra sense of air or focus to crisp up the top-end. Instead there’s a wonderful sense of evenhanded balance that allows instruments to coexist regardless of level or frequency, position on the stage or primacy in the musical scheme of things. Whereas players with a more dramatic turn of phrase will push a solo instrument forward, blanketing the careful underpinning of the rhythm section, there’s no such tendency with the Muse. The drama in the music comes from the performers, whose notes arrive, unclipped and un-enhanced, just when they should. It sounds simple I know, but it’s the digital equivalent of that old analogue chestnut, “All a record player has to do is revolve at 33RPM and be quiet.” Delivering detail has never been a problem for CD; turning that detail into usable, intelligible information, actually making sense of it, is another matter all together. Muse’s meticulous approach to signal processing and protection, their insistence on discrete instrumentation amplifiers to pass the fragile musical data, achieves just that. And it does it without cutting corners or simply excising unfortunate aspects of the medium’s performance. There’s a quality to the Erato’s delivery that is familiar yet initially elusive until you realise that it sounds whole and complete, where so many players sound edited or lacking – be it in terms of colour, life, energy or timing integrity.
It’s this holistic quality that makes the Muse at once so disarming and unforced; it doesn’t have to try and cover its tracks, so you don’t hear it doing so. What’s more, once you stop relying on the volume control to exaggerate body and musical substance you begin to appreciate that the Erato II is equally adept almost irrespective of level. Indeed, dynamics are notably uncompressed, making musical accents lucid and expressive. Combine those qualities and it’s no surprise that the Muse Erato II constitutes a performance marker against which other products should be compared, a benchmark in the truest sense of the word.
You might not always prefer it but I can guarantee that the comparisons will be instructive. My complaints with this machine are entirely practical in nature and centre mainly on the paucity of information on the back-panel, the remote control or from any other source. Sonically it is extremely hard to criticize, especially given the price and versatility. It’s sheer musical honesty may not be to your taste (and might not suit your system) which possibly demands something more dramatic or obvious to satisfy its needs. But as the basis for a well-balanced set-up, capable of playing all types of music, the Erato’s self-effacing and surefooted elegance, its ability to caress or cudgel as required, is hard to beat.
“You can pay, but you can never leave…” This Muse definitely leaves its mark .Ideally, as a reviewer, I would like to be able to approach each piece of new equipment with a completely open mind and with no preconceptions of how it SHOULD sound. But, like everyone else, I am inevitably preconditioned, a victim of previous experience and because of this the CD players I have been living with over the last year or so have left their mark upon me. So when the Erato II found itself installed in their place I must confess that I was somewhat taken aback by what I heard. At first I though the output levels were notably lower than I was used to and that the overall sound was somewhat flaccid. Where was the drive? Where was the oomph? There again, where were the controls? First contact with the Muse player and its deeply recessed buttons, scanty information and inscrutable exterior weren’t exactly promising. RG has something of a track record for ambushing me with unusual or unexpected products – products that then go on to rearrange my sensibilities. But first thoughts here were that he’d badly missed the mark.
Just a day or so before the Muse arrived I had bought Long Road Out Of Eden, the Eagles first new studio album in about 100 years, more out of curiosity than anything. Does, I wondered, the consumption of several millions of dollars worth of cocaine inhibit ones ability to write and play music? While listening to the album though I was lamenting rather more the fact that they had chosen to use quite as much compression, but came to the logical and well-worn conclusion that it had been mixed to sound good on US car radios, thus tempting drivers into the music shops to part with their readies. My conclusions were that there were some good songs, well played but that there were also more filler tracks than made sense. But then this was a double album and their bank accounts were running low. I found it all rather low-key.